Back in early May, amid the worst of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, Poland decided to call off a scheduled presidential election and reschedule it for the summer. At the time, observers were concerned the pandemic-related restrictions would deprive opposition candidates of a fair chance to reach voters, and that health concerns and the last-minute switch to an all-mail vote might keep large swaths of Poles from voting.
Two months later, in the final stretch before this Sunday’s rescheduled second-round vote, things couldn’t look more different for the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has attacked Poland’s media and assumed vast new powers over the legal system the European Union has criticized as anti-democratic.
Both candidates—incumbent President Andrzej Duda, the candidate of the populist PiS, and Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, from the opposition Civic Coalition—have been crisscrossing the country in an effort to turn out a record number of voters. In the first-round vote, on June 28, voter turnout actually increased significantly. Polling now shows Sunday’s vote may be a margin-of-error contest that could go either way, meaning the election could potentially hand the Polish opposition a major victory for the first time since PiS took power in 2015.
“It’s super tight—there’s every day one poll that shows Duda’s winning, and every day one poll that says Trzaskowski is winning,” said Milosz Hodun, an adviser for the liberal party Nowoczesna (“Modern”), part of Civic Coalition. “Every day in the morning I’m optimistic, and in the evening I’m pessimistic… it’s just so hard to predict what’s going to happen.”
Back in the spring, leaders of the PiS-led government were eager to go ahead with the originally scheduled May 10 election date. They were concerned that Duda, as the incumbent, could suffer in a summer or fall election as Poles began to feel the pandemic’s economic pain. However, domestic and international pressure prompted PiS to agree to hold the election this summer instead, via a combination of in-person and mail voting.
Ultimately, the fears about declining support seem to have been justified: Duda, who seemed very likely to be reelected in the spring, is now in real danger of losing. Unable to win the 50 percent needed to avoid a second-round election late last month, he’s running neck-and-neck with his opponent from the Civic Coalition.
The main opposition bloc’s newfound success is largely due to its candidate. Trzaskowski wasn’t the original choice: In the lead-up to the May vote, the bloc’s candidate was a prominent member of parliament named Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska. After that election was scrapped, however, the party picked Trzaskowski, a former secretary of state for European affairs and the mayor of Poland’s capital city since 2018, instead.
He is young and photogenic, and frames his candidacy as a choice between an open and closed Poland, between democracy and descent into populist authoritarianism. While short on policy specifics, that message seems to be resonating with voters who oppose the current PiS government.
A Trzaskowski victory would be a major symbolic victory for the opposition that would enable it to check PiS’s power. While the president is not especially involved in day-to-day policymaking, the position holds rhetorical and symbolic weight—and is able to veto legislation.
I met Trzaskowski while covering his mayoral campaign back in fall 2018. Speaking with him on his campaign bus a few days before the vote, it was clear he had thought about how opposition politicians can and should effectively combat populist rhetoric. He saw his role then, and clearly sees it now, as both an elected official and symbolic defender of open society and democracy. “I really want this city to be this island of freedom in the midst of what PiS is doing to our country,” he told me at the time.
More than just the candidate himself, Trzaskowski is doing as well as he is because he can actually hold rallies and run a relatively normal campaign—which wouldn’t have been possible back in April and May. Like its European neighbors, Poland has loosened many of its coronavirus restrictions, which means people can be out of their homes again and come to rallies and campaign events.
A Trzaskowski victory would be a major symbolic victory for the opposition that would enable it to check PiS’s power.
“They’ve organized rallies, the crowds are there… you don’t see people wearing so many masks,” said Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based organization Visegrad Insight. “In the context of global events, it’s surreal.”
Duda and PiS, meanwhile, have even gone so far as to tell Poles the danger from the virus is over—even though cases have not declined at the same rate they have in neighboring European countries. That is seen as an effort to ensure older voters, on whom Duda’s electorate depends, will feel comfortable going to the polls on Sunday. (As of Thursday, the country had a total of 36,951 confirmed cases and 1,551 deaths.)
“The president is saying every day the virus is not dangerous anymore and people must go vote,” Hodun said. “Poles don’t really believe in the pandemic anymore… nobody cares anymore about health.”
As a result of Trzaskowski’s climb in the polls, Duda and PiS—along with the PiS-aligned state television—have been hitting Trzaskowski hard and playing up various culture-war issues. From his position on LGBT issues, a deeply divisive topic in heavily Catholic Poland, to conspiracies about German intervention in the election on Trzaskowski’s behalf, Duda and PiS have sought to turn the discussion away from the pandemic and their handling of it, and to portray Trzaskowski as intent on destroying traditional Polish values.
Although the vote will take place on Sunday, it’s possible the results will be too close to deliver a solid result that night—and, if the losing side calls for a recount, the whole thing could drag on far longer. Duda’s current term officially expires on Aug. 6.
But those in the opposition are excited their candidate has a real shot—and hope the momentum behind him is enough to put him over the top on Sunday. “It’s clearly [Trzaskowski’s] moment,” Hodun said. “The question is if it’s enough to convince 50 percent plus one.”
Photo credit: Silar, Wikimedia Commons